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As the world calls for more and more resources, mining has taken hold of North America. There are roughly 300 functioning mines across North America right now. From gold mines to tintalum and niobium mines, if there’s a demand for it, it’s being dug for.

Mining has never been considered a safe profession. From wall collapses to explosions, mining has claimed the lives of many over the centuries. While modern mining is much safer than it used to be — accounting for 0.02% of deaths in the USA, compared with 0.016% caused by car accidents yearly — it still has occupational hazards unique to the profession of mining. Particle matter from mining dust is one of the most deadly occupational hazards associated with mining — and not just for the workers in the mining shafts.

Because there are so many types of mines across North America, it’s impossible to pinpoint a single particle matter that causes respiratory illness in workers and residents near mine shafts. The most common mines around are coal mines, however, there are a multitude of other mines across North America. We’ll focus on coal mining for the moment.

There are several hazardous “damps” (steam/vapor) that can appear in coal mines and can cause serious respiratory problems for coal mine workers. Black damp is a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. If inhaled, black damp can cause suffocation. Fire damp is mostly methane and is extremely flammable and also poisonous if inhaled, touched or ingested. After damp, which forms after a mine explosion and is less common, is composed of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Stink damp can, perhaps, be the most damaging in terms of how it affects the body. Named “stink” damp because of its rotten-egg smell, this airborne pollutant consists of hydrogen sulphide. Exposure to hydrogen sulphide prevents the brain from using oxygen by inhibiting the enzyme cytochrome oxidase, which is never a good thing. And finally, there’s white damp which is air containing carbon monoxide, which can also be lethal. Because carbon monoxide is so difficult to detect without the proper sensory machinery, this damp is extremely dangerous and can lead to death is less than 3 minutes if the exposure levels are high enough.

The most common respiratory illness in coal miners (often referred to as the coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) is black lung disease. This respiratory illness is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. It is a great concern in coal mine workers in North America and spurred the Black Lung Disability Trust because so many miners were falling ill with the disease.

Prevention of lung disease in miners is still very much in its infancy. While ventilation shafts and water systems are in place in most, if not all, underground mines, the worker’s exposure to airborne toxins is still too high.

How do we keep our miners safe from diseases like black lung?

This is something the mining industry has to take into consideration, and it has for the most part. Ramping up mine air quality monitoring systems and ventilation shafts, however, miners are still at risk.

Do you know someone who works in a mine, or do you work in the mining industry? If so, do you suffer from a respiratory illness or know someone who does because of their profession?